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About Brussels

The European Parliament has found its ideal home in Brussels (Bruxelles in French, Brussel in Flemish). This inland capital city of Belgium, bordered by The Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg and France, it is a multi-cultural and multi-lingual city at the very heart of Europe.

Already a thriving trade centre by the Middle Ages, the Bruxellois have inherited the wisdom of ancestors who lived under Roman, Spanish, Austrian, French, Dutch and German domination – winning independence only in 1830. Today, Brussels boasts a highly skilled and adaptable workforce. Despite the population of Belgium numbering only 10.2 million, with Brussels itself just 970,000-strong, the Bruxellois have the ability to compensate for their small numbers with skilled diplomacy, compromise and negotiation. These striking traits are followed closely by a highly intellectual and off-beat sense of humour, underpinned by a strong sense of the bizarre. This may help explain why the Surrealist movement, pioneered by René Magritte, took off in Brussels. A playful and irreverent reaction to life is also revealed in the Belgian love affair with the comic strip, popularised worldwide with Hergé’s boy hero, Tintin.

Language is a complex and serious issue in bilingual (French and Flemish) Brussels, as well as being the focus of communal tensions. The issue is further complicated by the fact that the common language of one third of the resident population is often English. However, the fierce linguistic debate takes a lighter form, with constant puns and word games forming a complex web. While a top-notch restaurant is called Comme Chez Soi (Just Like Home), a less prestigious establishment calls itself Comme Chez Moi (Just Like My Home), with more than a twist of irony.

Yet the image of the city suffers abroad, due to its very diversity, as well as the self-effacing nature of its quirky inhabitants, too modest to blow their own trumpet. Brussels has no symbol to rival the skyscraping Eiffel Tower, aside from the famed Manneken-Pis, a statuette of a urinating boy.

The first visit to Brussels, uncoloured by expectations, is therefore all the more rewarding. Narrow cobbled streets open suddenly into the breathtaking Grand-Place, with its ornate guildhouses, impressive Town Hall and buzzing atmosphere. It would be difficult to find a more beautiful square in the whole of Europe. Bars, restaurants and museums are clustered within the compact city centre, enclosed within the petit ring, which follows the path of the 14th-century city walls. The medieval city is clearly defined by its narrow, labyrinthine streets, making it is easy to distinguish the later additions, such as Léopold II’s Parisian-style boulevards – Belliard and La Loi – today lined with embassies, banks and the grand apartments of the bourgeoisie and close to the glitzy new EU quarter. The working class still congregate in the Marolles district, in the shadow of the Palais de Justice, although this area is on the up-and-up. New immigrant communities are settling in the rundown area around the Gare du Nord. Neighbouring communes, St-Gilles and Ixelles, draw an arty crowd with their shops and restaurants. These are worth the trek, if only to glimpse some of Brussels’ finest Art Nouveau buildings, the style being developed by Bruxellois Victor Horta, the son of a shoemaker.

With a pleasant temperate climate – warm summers and mild winters – and a host of sights and delights to entertain, Brussels offers far more than just beer and chocolate (although excelling in both). In 2003, the city intends to celebrate its diversity – from its rich architecture to native hero and lyrical singer Jacques Brel – through a series of cultural events, festivals and restoration schemes.


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